VICTORIA, British Columbia — The Canadian government will pay the next financial installment to continue its participation as a partner in the F-35 program, prompting more confusion over whether it intends to proceed with its previously stated plan to abandon the Joint Strike Fighter and buy a cheaper alternative.
Canada will pay US $32.9 million by May 1 to allow its continued involvement in the program, according to Canadian Department of National Defence officials.
Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has further added to the confusion on the country’s involvement in the F-35 program by stating the government would not rule out purchasing the aircraft in a competition expected to be held to replace the country’s aging CF-18 fighter jets.
That runs directly counter to against what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during the run-up to the federal election in October. Trudeau said if his Liberal Party was elected, which it was on Oct. 4, his government would not buy the F-35 since it was not needed for Canadian defense need and it was too expensive.
Department of National Defence spokeswoman Ashley Lemire said Canada's payment for continued participation in the F-35 program covers the period from Oct. 1, 2015 to Sept. 30, 2016.
"At this time, Canada remains in the Joint Strike Fighter program, which ensures Canada can continue to benefit from economic opportunities resulting from the partnership while we work to determine the way forward," Lemire said. "Our long-term participation in the JSF is to be determined."
Lemire said that Canada’s continued participation in the program does not commit it to purchase the F-35.
The Liberal Party government has not yet set a timeline to hold the fighter jet competition. The government hopes to have a review of defense capabilities and future needs finished by the end of this year.
Potential contenders to replace the Canada’s CF-18s include the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Dassault Rafale, Boeing’s Super Hornet and Saab’s Gripen.
Lockheed Martin Canada spokeswoman Cindy Tessier said the firm continues to work with Canada on the F-35 program.
Asked what aircraft Lockheed Martin would bid in the upcoming Canadian fighter jet competition, Tessier stated, "Until such time as the requirements in a procurement process to replace the current fighter fleet are set and known, it would be inappropriate to speculate on government actions and how Lockheed Martin might react to them."
Tessier noted that Lockheed Martin believes the F-35 "is the best solution for Canada's future fighter defense."
Some Canadian industry sources hold out hope that the Liberal Party government may reverse its election promise and eventually select the F-35.
Lemire said Canadian firms have secured U.S. $743 million in contracts so far on the F-35 program. But in previous interviews, Lockheed Martin officials have said that if the Canadian government decides not to buy the F-35, the company would honor the contracts that exist with Canadian industry. But for the firm’s approach on future work on the aircraft, the company would be to focus on industries in countries that are acquiring the aircraft.
If Canada pulls out of the F-35 program it would be the first of the nation partners to do so.
The previous Conservative Party government had committed to purchasing 65 F-35s but put that temporarily on hold amid accusations it and the Canadian military had tried to hide the full cost of the procurement.
Alan Williams, who signed the original memorandum that brought Canada into the F-35 program in 1997, said the decision by the Liberal Party government to pay the next installment shouldn't be taken as a signal Canada is reversing its decision.
"I think proceeding with the payment is a smart move because it continues to buy the government time on how it wants to proceed," said Williams, the former assistant deputy minister for materiel at Canada's Department of National Defence.
Williams said Trudeau would not legally be able to prevent Lockheed Martin from bidding in any Canadian competition, but depending on how the way the requirements of the acquisition are designed it could might prevent the aircraft from winning.
"If you decide that you don't need stealth or certain other attributes that are the hallmark of the F-35, then its chances are greatly diminished," he said.
In their defense platform, the Liberal Party stated that the primary role of a new Canadian fighter jet would be to contribute to the defense of North America and not to act as a "stealth first-strike platform."
David Pugliese is the Canada correspondent for Defense News.